The Huntsville Times

City stops paddling; county's still swinging

Spanked student's aunt says practice is unsafe for girls, abusive to all
Times Staff Writer

Renesha Carson stood in the assistant principal's office. She put her feet together, leaned forward. Palms pressed flat on the seat of the chair. She had never been paddled before.

"It's a big piece of thick wood," said Renesha, 14. "I was hurting." Her aunt, Vonna Knight, had requested that Monrovia Middle School not spank Renesha. Knight said she sent a note to the school. Principal Derrell Brown said he would honor such a request, but he could find no note.

At first, Knight considered suing. Then she learned Alabama is one of 22 states where the law protects teachers who paddle children. There is no legal recourse. "I think corporal punishment is a form of organized child abuse," Knight said. "It is no longer 1865."

By 1865, paddling was already banned in Italy, Holland and Poland. Today, the United States and Canada remain among the few industrialized nations that permit corporal punishment in schools.

It doesn't happen much in Huntsville schools today. Under Superintendent Ann Roy Moore, who took office in 2001, Huntsville has all but spared the rod.

A Huntsville Times report two years ago found 265 paddlings in Huntsville schools in the 1998-99 school year. Today the practice is still allowed, but discouraged. There were just six paddlings in Huntsville between August and December of last year. All six were at Chapman Elementary.

Madison City Schools banned the practice altogether in 1998. But the principals of Madison County haven't quit swinging. That same Times report found 1,177 paddlings in Madison County Schools in 1998-99. Madison County principals divided on corporal punishment issue; practice increasingly under fire Paddling Continued from page A1 According to the county's latest figures, there were 1,031 paddlings in the 2001-02 school year.

Knight worked as a teacher in Maryland before returning to Monrovia last year. She would have been fired without debate for hitting a child. Now she is hoping to capture enough attention to end paddling, if not throughout Alabama, then at least in Madison County.

"I hate Alabama. I really do," said Knight, who grew up in Shelby County and attended the University of Montevallo. "Children cannot protect themselves."

Principals differ on paddling

Some county principals, like Brown at Monrovia Middle, say spanking can be effective, but only as a last resort. Other county principals, like Brenda Goodwin at New Hope High, find paddling ineffective and do not permit it. But all agree parents often ask for the paddle.

Sparkman Middle Principal Ronnie Blair paddled 102 boys last year. "In most of the paddlings we have, it's requested by the parents," he said. "The thing I dislike the most about this job is paddling someone else's child. I don't like it."

The NAACP has decried paddling, a practice national figures show is twice as likely to involve black males as white males. The American Academy of Pediatrics argues that all children deserve the same basic protection as prisoners and soldiers. Scores of abuse prevention groups, teacher associations, psychologist networks and child care groups have lined up against paddling.

Across the country, corporal punishment is under renewed scrutiny. Last year, Pennsylvania banned the paddle. Lawmakers in Missouri and Delaware debated a similar ban. Last month, Wyoming lawmakers narrowly killed a bill to end paddling.

Some argue hitting a child teaches that violence is an acceptable solution. Some worry schools are liable for unforeseen injuries. The four most prolific paddlers of 1999-2000, in order, were Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee. In some hold-out states, the practice is fading. Seven states paddled less frequently in 1999-2000 than did Madison County Schools. Wyoming reported only eight paddlings that year.

Even in Tennessee, last fall a Memphis school board member opposed to corporal punishment printed a flier that compared teachers to prostitutes and porn stars - the only others paid to spank.

In Madison County, paddlings must be conducted outside the classroom. A teacher or administrator must witness the punishment. For older children, the paddler must be of the same gender.

Never hit before

Renesha had never been hit before. Her mother passed away two years ago. She attended Williams Middle last year in Huntsville. No paddling there. This year, Knight's husband took a job with the military and moved to Monrovia. Renesha moved in.

On Feb. 21, a teacher discovered Renesha hugging a boy in a stairwell. The assistant principal offered a choice: two days of in-school suspension or two licks. Renesha chose to be paddled.

"I didn't want to miss any assignments," she said. She knew about the no-paddling note, but didn't say anything. No one called her aunt before or after the incident.

Knight argues Renesha should not have been given the choice. "When you start hitting a young woman on the buttocks, you don't know what you are doing to her reproductive organs," Knight said.

At Sparkman High, Assistant Principal Gayle Owens agrees. Sparkman High does not give girls the choice to be paddled. "We just don't think it's a good idea to paddle a girl," Owens said. "She could be pregnant. You just don't know. And you can't ask."

Same kids targeted

Huntsville Superintendent Moore said paddling too often targets the same kids repeatedly. She also said it's a potential liability if a principal accidentally hits a child's arm or acts without a witness.

For example, paddling without a witness in 2000 cost Ollie Jones her job as principal of Montview Elementary in Huntsville.

Deborah Baker, principal of Chapman Elementary in Huntsville, still paddles. But Baker said she does not act without a parent conference. And she does not paddle older children.

"There have been a few situations where it worked," Baker said. "What can I say?" In 1979, Sweden became the first country to forbid parents to spank their own children. Nine more European nations, from Germany to Croatia, soon followed suit.

Many here who dislike school paddling share the same sentiment as David Blair, president of the Huntsville school board. He believes paddling can be effective, but only when done by parents in the home.

In schools, corporal punishment won't work without parental support, said Ray Swaim, superintendent of Madison County Schools. Two sets of values will confuse kids.

Alabama law doesn't require principals to contact parents or even honor a request to forgo corporal punishment. But Swaim said county schools will honor all such requests.

Knight said she also sent no-spank notes with her daughters to Endeavor Elementary and Sparkman Middle. An educator, she knows the drill. She saved photocopies.

Notes were not found at Endeavor and Monrovia. A note was found at Sparkman Middle. "We never spank a child at Monrovia whose parents do not want them spanked," said Brown at Monrovia Middle. He said he has tried to call Knight to discuss the situation. He even wrote her a letter. She won't respond. "I feel like we don't have anything to talk about," Knight said. "He should have called me before the paddling."

Instead, Knight called Oprah. "Right now my main goal is to exploit," she said. "There are other people in other parts of the United States that don't think about this because they don't even think this is going on."